The right appliances save time and money, but what does a frugal foodie really need in the kitchen?
EDITOR’S NOTE: Before coming to Debt.com, Meghan Stewart worked in the appliance industry, testing and marketing products. She even wrote the manuals for many of the products you may have in your kitchen. So, the first question I asked her: Which appliances should I buy for myself? Then I decided, “Hey, let’s tell everyone the answers!”
I love it when a kitchen gadget earns its keep. It’s particularly gratifying when I’ve dropped a few hundred bucks for a top-of-the-line small appliance that I actually end up using enough to justify the cost.
It’s often hard to know when it’s really worth the investment, and when a new toy will wind up as nothing more than countertop clutter. So, here are the top small appliances to own for the at-home chef…
1. Slow cooker
Particularly in a house full of 9-to-5ers (like mine), there’s really nothing better for your money than a slow cooker. The recipes are often as easy as throwing a bunch of ingredients into the crock – and by the time you get home from work, a hot and fresh meal is ready for you.
That convenience helps you stay healthy and on a budget, because you don’t just opt for fast food or pricey delivery after a long day at work.
What you need to know: Don’t buy a slow cooker that cooks too fast. “Slow cookers aren’t supposed to boil food, but almost all of them do — it’s usually just a matter of how long it takes to get there,” says home economist Marianne Langan, who’s worked with everyone from Reynold’s and Heinz to KitchenAid and George Foreman Grills.
“You expect a low simmer because that’s what it’s supposed to do, but they usually don’t. If your unit cooks too hot, your food will get burnt on the bottom.”
Recommended models: I always go with the OG of the slow cooker world — the Crock-Pot. They’re the original, and they’re also affordable.
2. Electric contact grill
Oprah doesn’t recommend them — “makes a fine burger, but there’s nothing it can do that an outdoor grill or even a frying pan can’t” — but she’s wrong. Yes, I’m calling out Oprah, because a good indoor contact grill is one of the greatest appliances you can buy for easy meals and saving money. You can grill despite rain or cold outside, and since it heats from both sides, it effectively cuts cooking time in half. Most meals can be done in less than 10 minutes — a big advantage if you have a hungry family to feed after work.
I can’t count the number of times my contact grill and a few Bubba burgers have kept me out of the drive-thru lane. I also use mine to make panini sandwiches.
What you need to know: Removable plates are worth the extra cost! It’s so much easier and quicker to just put the grill plates in the dishwasher, instead of scrubbing them by hand.
Recommended models: Again, George Foreman Grills started the whole idea of indoor contact grilling (where you cook from both sides). Of course, full disclosure: I worked for them, so I might have a little bias here.
3. Coffeemaker of your choosing
If you’re a coffee drinker, you need to invest in a machine for your house. Although the average price of an espresso is $2.45 (according to Statistic Brain), I’ve never made it out of Starbucks for less than $5.
Pick a machine that fits your tastes. If you drink espresso, go for an espresso maker or pod machine. For regular coffee, a standard machine is great, or a K-cup machine can provide even more convenience.
What you need to know: If you’re going for a pod or K-cup machine, look into getting a refillable holder for the grounds. This will help you cut the higher cost of pods and K-cups.
Recommended models: For K-Cups, I fell in love with the Keurig K-Cup my boss got us here in the office. For pods, my Nespresso (made by Krups) has been reliable for several years now, so it’s worth the higher cost.
4. Countertop blender
A really good (read: high-powered) blender can do so much more than drinks. You can make soups and sauces, chop nuts and — like the ads say — so much more.
“Most consumers don’t even know what their blender can really do,” Langan says. “It can do so many things – sauces, baby foods, purees. And if you don’t want a countertop model, as long as you’re not doing frozen drinks with ice, then an immersion blender is perfect, too.”
In Latin America, most people don’t own a food processor, Langan says. They just use a blender. “I don’t know how they do it, but they do,” she says. “They use their blenders for absolutely everything, including making refried beans.”
What you need to know: Power matters. Make sure to get a high-wattage machine and watch out for claims on “peak” power — this is only the power you get on pulse. “Standard” power is just as important, unless you plan on pulsing everything you blend.
Recommended models: I love my Breville IKON Hemisphere, although it’s pricey compared to brands like Oster and Hamilton Beach. Still, it’s less than half the price of a Vitamix and worth the investment for the good results you’ll get.
5. Bread maker
Although this machine often lands at the top of most useless lists, I completely disagree. It’s one of the most-used and money-saving appliances in my kitchen. I use it to make bread, cut dough, make jam and marmalade, and even to mix cake batter when I’m feeling particularly lazy but don’t want lumps.
Langan disagrees with me. “You don’t get nearly the same quality as you get with handmade bread,” she says. “If you like bread, then you should do it by hand.”
Sadly, time limitations and sheer laziness usually keep me from hand-kneading, which is exactly why I love my bread maker. You can even get really creative and make things like cinnamon buns and fruit-filled coffee cakes to keep you out of the bakery aisle completely.
What you need to know: If you’re baking gluten-free, plan for a higher ingredient cost. Gluten-free flours tend to be more expensive, and most recipes usually require a mix of flours to make a loaf. It’s still worth it, but you may need to adjust your budget when you first go out and purchase everything you need.
Recommended models: Zojirushi is my favorite, because it works well and keeps working. The horizontal unit also fits really nicely on a counter, so you still have room to work in front of it.